Violence against women as it is typically portrayed in novels, TV series, and movies involves an intrusion of the pathological upon otherwise safe lives. In these fictional scenarios, teams of helpful, well-trained police officers work long hours to find the perpetrator, whose inevitable arrest delivers at least a sense of closure and justice to the victim and her loved ones.
In real life, as several recent high-profile rape and sexual harassment cases have demonstrated, justice and closure are still in short supply for the predominately female victims of sex crimes. Often silenced or vilified by their employers, colleagues, and family, when they do voice their accusations, victims are dragged through a legal system that undermines their credibility and even blames them for the violence suffered at the hands of male perpetrators.
In her engaging, witty debut novel, Elisabeth de Mariaffi challenges the mainstream tropes of the detective and suspense genres by placing sexual violence along the spectrum of intimidation, harassment, and fear that women experience on a daily basis.
Set in Toronto in 1993, The Devil You Know follows Evie Jones, a young reporter, as she investigates a brutal rape-and-murder case that has gone unsolved for more than a decade. The victim was Evie’s best friend, 11-year-old Lianne Gagnon, who police believed was abducted by a known criminal named Robert Cameron. Shortly after the murder, Cameron left the city and changed his name; he has successfully avoided authorities ever since.
Evie is overwhelmed by memories of Lianne’s murder after she starts reporting on a breaking news story: the arrest of the infamous Scarborough Rapist, Paul Bernardo. Evie researches the Bernardo case while also launching her own investigation into Lianne’s murder.
De Mariaffi incorporates details of Bernardo’s actual crimes with the fictional story of Lianne’s slaying and the failed efforts to bring her killer to justice, creating an unsettling echo chamber. The tragedy and senselessness of the crime against Lianne are magnified alongside Bernardo’s horrific escapades, Lianne’s name becoming incorporated with those of the real-life victims, just as Bernardo’s name is associated with Lianne’s murderer.
As Evie explores the facts and theories behind Lianne’s death, she uncovers several possible connections between the crime and her own mother’s mysterious past. The investigation becomes even more personal – and dangerous – when a man dressed in black begins spying on her at night from the fire escape outside her apartment window. Is the peeping Tom the man who killed Lianne 11 years earlier, or just another maladjusted male exercising his pathologies on a female victim? The novel further dramatizes both the anonymity and intimacy of male violence against women by keeping Evie and the reader in a state of suspense and fear.
De Mariaffi avoids the false comforts of much genre fiction by making Evie a believably vulnerable character, one who lacks the support and resources of a police detective and the almost superhuman intelligence of a female avenger like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Evie knows that the law is supposed to protect her from male violence, but her life experience – like that of her mother and friends – tells a different story. Evie has grown so accustomed to the probability of male violence that she’s “spent a lifetime practicing” to meet her abuser. When a potential candidate literally appears at her window, she discovers what so many women learn: the police are either unable or unwilling to protect them.
The novel’s primary relationships – including the deep but sexually charged friendship between Evie and her best friend, David – are filled in with believable detail and insight. De Mariaffi occasionally errs on the side of the angels by making her feminist heroine a tad too likeable, but Evie is otherwise a fully realized character: smart, witty, confused by her often contradictory desires, and frustrated by her inability to shake off the legacy of Lianne’s murder.
David’s father, Graham, is a particularly impressive creation: a subtly creepy misogynist whose powerful presence and oily charms may or may not conceal the mind of a rapist and murderer. As Evie finally begins to put together the pieces of Lianne’s tragic end, Graham becomes a symbol of the ways men often misuse their power in the service of lust and insecurity.
The Devil You Know explores the tangled emotional and ideological roots of violence against women with subtlety and humour. More impressively, it does so while delivering the suspense and narrative pace of a good thriller.